Lonely? How to Know and What to Do

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“No my friend, darkness is not everywhere, for here and there I find faces illuminated from within; paper lanterns among the dark trees.” ~Carole Borges

Are there times when you are overcome by a sense of loneliness? Not just being alone, but that feeling of separation and isolation from the world around you? Do you have a longing for real and intimate connection?

When I was in my 20′s, I moved from Atlanta to New York City for a job promotion. It was an exciting and heady time for me, moving to the Big Apple and working in the fashion industry. Every day I was surrounded by people — the neighbors in my brownstone, people on the subway and walking on the streets, my busy and crowded office building.

At any given moment, any time day or night, I could go to a club, to the theater, to a museum. There were always things to do and people everywhere.

But my first few months in New York were some of the loneliest in my life.

Yes, there were people everywhere, but they weren’t my people. There were a million things to do, but nothing felt familiar or normal. The smells, the sounds, the way people interacted was entirely foreign to me.

Here I was, a young Southern thing in a pastel business suit, saying, “Hey, how are ya’ll doing?” Those aloof New Yorkers in their monochromatic dark suits and severe haircuts looked at me like I’d just fallen off the potato truck.

If you are feeling lonely now or have bouts of loneliness — you are not alone! In their book, The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century, husband and wife psychiatrists, Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, point to an increasing trend of social disconnection, which is reinforced by our culture.

They point out census statistics like the dramatic rise in single-person households, as well as social surveys showing a rise in narcissism and a decrease in the number of meaningful conversations people report having with others.

Couple that with the American ideal of  self-reliance; our overworked and busy lifestyles which leave little time for personal relationships; and the proliferation of communication technologies like cell phones and the Internet, and you have the recipe for an epidemic of lonely people who long for connection and intimacy.

As a blogger, I can see how technology can isolate people, drawing them into an alternative reality of cyber-relationships and information addiction. The more time we spend in this world, the less time and energy we put into our flesh and blood relationships.

We need real social relationships to survive. In fact, according to Psychology Today, “evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships is not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically. There are effects on the brain and on the body.”

If our feelings of emptiness and isolation become chronic, we are at risk for some rather serious health conditions:

  • Loneliness is a major precipitant of depression, anxiety, and alcoholism, as well as a higher risk of suicide.
  • Loneliness raises levels of circulating stress hormones and levels of blood pressure.
  • Loneliness impairs regulation of the circulatory system forcing the heart muscle to work harder and subjecting the blood vessels to damage.
  • Loneliness erodes the quality and effectiveness of sleep, rendering it less restorative, both physically and psychologically.
  • Loneliness leads to people experiencing higher levels of perceived stress, even when they are relaxing.

Sometimes our behaviors and actions reveal our state of loneliness before we become consciously aware of how we are feeling.

Here are some of the symptoms of loneliness:

  • Working excessively or spend excessive time on a solitary activity
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling isolated, like there is no one with whom you can communicate openly
  • Feeling empty and sad
  • Having a negative attitude toward life
  • Feel shame and self-condemnation
  • Not able to develop or maintain social relationships
  • Lacking self-motivation
  • Failing to initiate social contact
  • Passing judgment on others
  • Feeling that your needs are not being met
  • Over-reacting to life events
  • Passivity or pessimism
  • Excessive time spent on the computer or in front of TV
  • Feeling worthless, helpless, or powerless
  • Being self-absorbed
  • Feeling highly sensitive
  • Being passive or pessimistic
  • Feeling bored or self-pitying
  • Having few or no friends

Do any of these symptoms resonate with you?

If you are feeling several of these symptoms or you have any one of them chronically, you must take action to bolster your relationship skills and address your essential needs for intimacy, connection, and interpersonal bonds.

You can cure your loneliness, but it does require awareness, action and sustained effort to feel re-connected to the world.

Here’s what you can to counteract loneliness right now:

Awareness. If you see yourself in any of the symptoms described above, ask yourself the question, “Am I lonely?” Look again at the physical and emotional toll loneliness can take on you. Just being aware that you are suffering is huge step in addressing the problem.

Fleeting or chronic? Is your loneliness episodic or have you been suffering from it for weeks, months, or even years? We all feel lonely from time to time, but if you have been dealing with it chronically, you must admit that to yourself and take action.

Get support. If you are suffering from chronic loneliness, you probably feel like you don’t have a support system. This is the time to find a good counselor to support you through the work of reconnection — and with addressing some of the emotional reactions you are experiencing due to loneliness.

Step away from the computer. Or back off of work or projects or whatever is tethering you to isolation and keeping you away from real human connection. Start slowly disengaging from these isolating activities, using the time to call a friend or spend time with your spouse, family member, or neighbor. You will need to initiate reaching out.

Stretch yourself. If you are shy by nature or more of an introvert, it is intimidating to put yourself out there and meet new people or even initiate contact with old friends. You will have to feel some discomfort initially, but if you take the first step in socializing, you will feel more and more comfortable over time. Try one small action that will connect you with others — attend a class, invite an acquaintance to lunch, volunteer, initiate a conversation at a meeting or party.

Use social media. But not just to hide behind the computer. Use Facebook or Twitter to connect with old or new friends, but then suggest a face-to-face interaction. Social media is a great way to connect, but it should be a vehicle for real relationships, not a substitute.

Quality not quantity. As I suggested in my own personal experience in New York, you can be surrounded by people but still feel quite lonely. It isn’t the quantity of relationships that counts — it’s the quality. We require more than just superficial interactions with acquaintances. We need deep, personal and close relationships. To develop those, you must be willing to share intimately with another person. You must be open so that others will be open to you.

Take personal responsibility. Be real with yourself. Life is what we make it. If you feel lonely, sad, depressed, or disconnected, the only person who can change that is you. If you need help in making that change, regard seeking help as a positive forward-moving step. If you need ideas for how to connect, just doing the research is a forward-moving step. But remember in addition to getting support and researching, you must take real action toward connecting with others.

Awareness of your loneliness can be a powerful tool for personal growth and profound positive change. When you recognize that your choices are to either remain lonely and unhappy or to take action (even if it’s uncomfortable), then taking action becomes the only possible choice.

Every action you take toward connection will empower you and help lift the veil of loneliness, moving you to a new life of healthy, fulfilling relationships.

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Comments

  1. I really liked this post, Barrie. Loneliness is something I struggle with even though I feel there’s a fullness to my life. I have simplified my relationships down to the most meaningful, and at different times, that can feel very freeing or very lonely. I think you’re right about awareness being a way forward. A simple meaningful exchange (with you on skype for example) can make a world of difference to my day. When I let go societal expectations of what a full life is and live by my own, I’m much more content.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      You are an amazing work in progress Katie! I’m so glad you count me as one of your meaningful relationships. :)

  2. I dunno. I spend a ridiculous amount of time working, but it’s legitimately enjoyable for me. I often spend time using social media channels, though.

    It would probably be a good idea to do a bit more outdoorsy stuff, though.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Rob,
      It’s great to love your work, but balance is important too. Life is filled with so many beautiful things, especially great relationships — and outdoorsy stuff! :) I hope you make room for these things in your life. It might go from good to great!

  3. Barrie, what a fantastic post. I can really relate to some of the things you have said here.

    I have kids (who are still little), I am working, blogging and pursuing my writing, I just find that any free time I get is precious. I do feel blessed to have people in my life who love me; my family, friends and incredibly supportive colleagues but it was not always like that so I truly get what you are saying. I still manage to have one of those days even now and now I know what I need to do. Thanks

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Marya,
      Thank you for your kind comments. I remember when my kids were small, in spite of being so busy with them, it could be very lonely. They are wonderful — but not adult company. I am so glad you have a network of supportive friends and family. I hope you give yourself the gift of spending time with them away from the responsibilities of parenting. We need that so much.

  4. Martha Mayo says:

    Hi Barrie,

    As always you are right on target and so timely for me.

    Loneliness has been a rather constant companion for the past few years, even though I’ve been surrounded by supportive family and friends.

    Your suggestions are much appreciated as I continue the forward movement of leaving loneliness in the ditch!

    Shared on FB too ss more and more folks can read your wisdom and take it into their hearts.

    Thanks for all you do!

    Best,
    Martha

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Martha,
      I’m so glad this came to you at the right time. I think we all go through periods when loneliness is more of a presence in our lives. I know it is hard, and I’m glad you have supportive people around you. Keep moving forward!

  5. Being alone and being lonely are two different things to me. I enjoy time with myself and I also enjoy the interaction with others too. Early in the morning, I love getting up, meditating on my blessings, creating what I desire, drinking a cup of coffee, etc.—my body and soul are refreshed.
    As I move through my day, this morning ritual makes me better equipped to enjoy and appreciate everyone and everything in my life.

    I agree that you need to interact with others but do not forget to also spend time with your spiritual self too—that, makes my day perfect.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Cris,
      I enjoy that morning ritual alone as well. I never feel lonely during that time — it feels completely full. But at some point during the day, I realize I am ready for connection with others. I am blessed with wonderful people in my life. A balance of interaction and alone time is good for me as well. :)

  6. Loneliness can be a door to a new life, I have found. If it leads me to a closer connection with the truth of my existence. Thanks for a great post.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Christopher,
      Yes, it definitely can be a door to a new life — both in self-awareness and stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone. I’m so glad you liked the post.

  7. I can relate to most if not all of those symptoms at one point or another during my life. In some ways, I still feel quite angry about some of my personality traits that I’ve had and in some cases still have. I guess it’s a process of getting to know yourself, and getting to know others …

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Andy,
      Some of us are innately more introverted that others. It requires more of an effort because it doesn’t feel natural. But even the art of creating good relationships can be learned and practiced. Everything gets more comfortable with learning and practice.

  8. Excellent post Barrie & one that is not often dealt with. Loneliness is so often overlooked and can be as debilitating as many diagnosed diseases. Thank you.
    be good to yourself
    David

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi David,
      Yes, it is debilitating and is often a precursor to or a symptom of depression. If it’s chronic, we need to pay attention. Glad you pointed that out.

  9. Sudarshan Kumar says:

    Dear Barrie,

    Thank you for sharing this sensitive and sensible piece on dealing with loneliness – with folks like you around, there’ll be less of it!

    Warm rgds
    sk

  10. Everyone is lonely in this world and experiences it at least once in a day but when the situation aggravates there must be some correction steps that must be initiated. Identification of the problem is the first step you take to solve it. Becoming gregarious can help a lot in coming out of loneliness.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Leo,
      Yes, everyone is lonely from time to time. And you are right, everything improves with practice — including making connections. When you start talking with people, you get more comfortable with it. :)

  11. Had to laugh at the Southern thing. I’m a Memphis girl now living happily in the Pacific Northwest. As you have no doubt discovered, not very many Southerners leave the South, so when we do, we are often strangers in a strange land.

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Isn’t that the truth Galen! It took me a long time to convince people in New York that I didn’t eat dirt or watch Hee Haw. I actually had someone ask me if there were palm trees in Atlanta. Some of the most highly-acclaimed writers were Southerners living in NYC (Thomas Wolfe, Truman Capote, Harper Lee).

  12. Hi Barrie,

    I think loneliness is something that many of us struggle with in this day and age. I have certainly experienced it myself so I know what it is like. I am glad to see the lovely list of tips you have compiled to manage loneliness.

    I agree with you that it is very important to have a strong support network. This is something we should be constantly building and nurturing so that we won’t feel lonely in the first place. And even if we did feel lonely, we would have people to turn to. Having close friends who are there for us can make a world of difference in this life.

    Taking personal responsibility is also very important since we are the only people who can actually make changes in our own lives. If we do not help ourselves who will?

    To complement all the useful suggestions you have made, it also helps to have driving purpose in life. Whether it is someone to live for or something to work towards, purpose is important. A life without purpose makes for a meaningless and lonely existence. But if one has purpose, then it is easier for things to fall into place provided measures are taken to lead a balanced life in the first place.

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

    • Barrie Davenport says:

      Hi Irving,
      You always write such thoughtful and useful comments! I agree, having a purpose definitely gives you a foundation for a meaningful life and creates opportunities for connection (unless your purpose is to be a hermit!). That ties in with the title of your post about complacency. You can’t be complacent and wait for life to happen. You must create it and open opportunities for real and intimate interactions with people.

  13. Dear Barrie,
    I am going through a phase of life where I continuously feel lonely even though I have relations and contacts and worldly amenities.
    I liked when you quoted:
    “… I can see how technology can isolate people, drawing them into an alternative reality of cyber-relationships and information addiction. The more time we spend in this world, the less time and energy we put into our flesh and blood relationships…”
    I am with you. Because of this I am out of FB now and even restricted my phone calls at a very large extent.
    Untill we have found the centre of bliss and love within ourselves..it’s bound to happen that our hope to get them from someone else will FAIL…
    So, now a days.. I do lot of meditation and self observation to get the CLARITY and enjoy the LONELINESS…
    You blog is very inspiring..keep writing such great stuffs.
    Thanks, Ranjeet

  14. Hi Barrie,

    I think people can put themselves into a lonely state. They do this when they erect walls around them to fence themselves in. I k now I was such a person before. In fact, I still carry this form of characteristics around although I am fully aware that the whole world is waiting for you if only you open your gate and let them in.

    Your experience in New York was probably similar. Being in a new city and culture can be intimidating. What if you embraced the Big Apple in way that is proactive and open then? What if you have reached out first and risk exposure first? It is always a risk to make the first move. Because we have this tendency to feel that people out there are not welcoming.

    But my experiences have proved otherwise. People are really very nice out there. There is so much to gain just reaching out first. Afterall life is all a risk isn’t it?

  15. A wonderful post Barrie, thanks for sharing it with us!

    I’ve suffered from loneliness before, especially during my teen years at college. It wasn’t fun, and I didn’t enjoy going to class where I was surrounded by people who I didn’t really know and trust. It was frightening to a degree.

    But now that I’m much more confident and comfortable in myself, I can realise why I felt such strong feelings of loneliness – it was because I didn’t feel that I belonged.

    I didn’t feel wanted, I felt like an outcast, and more importantly, it felt like I didn’t have a right to be there. It may sound crazy seeing as I had every right to be in class, but that’s how it genuinely felt. I believed that I shouldn’t have been allowed in there.

    This is where, I think, the core of loneliness lies, that we don’t feel we deserve to be in that place. We feel inadequate and unworthy, and this is reflected back to us by other people. But getting that sense that we DO belong here, that we have every right to be there, can help.

    We can feel and think differently, that we are worthy of this new place and this new crowd, that we deserve to be treated like everyone else around us, and that we are part of this culture, no matter what anyone else says. If we feel like we have something to contribute, we won’t feel so lonely :-)

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